05 August 2008

Over-booking: No ticket to ride

'What has a number of us so perturbed on this flight is an old airline scam that Continental has pulled on us this morning. They've over-booked our 8.50 am Newark-to-San Francisco flight. For European travellers who are unfamiliar with over-booking, the practice may startle you. Simply put, America's Federal Aviation Administration permits airlines to continue selling reservations on a flight long after the seats have sold out. (This is allowed only on flights that originate and terminate in North America.)

It's the equivalent of buying a concert ticket online and showing up to the venue to find that ticket is not enough to get you in the door. If you want to see the gig, you have to wait outside and hope an uncaring arena employee can convince one of your fellow concert-goers to give you his seat. If you've come with a friend, you have to hope two people will give up their seats. Of course, such charity doesn't exist on the perimeter of a sold-out concert venue, nor does it exist inside an airport terminal as rows are being called. Do-gooders of all stripes want to get to their next destination as soon as possible; to them, the desperate beggars on the sidelines are invisible. And because no sane person will give up his or her seat, no matter how forlorn the pleading party appears, a series of bribes are required to lubricate the negotiations.
Perversely, there are travellers I know who take great joy in being thrust into such situations. The power to say yes or no, while being dangled a $350 voucher, they feel, is a great rush. They have the power to spare a poor soul. Or, they can flick down an outstretched thumb and let the lions have their way with the miserable wretch, as they no doubt will recount later in the airport lounge to adoring strangers.
My wife, an Italian, had never heard of over-booking until this morning. She could not conceive that the same country that offers same-morning drop-off laundry services for $7.50 a load could so routinely stiff its air passengers. Our story happens pretty much daily in the US, aggravating frequent flyers everywhere. This time was unusually perverse, I thought. Two hours before check-in, we were informed at the counter that even though we had purchased our tickets four months prior (and my credit card was charged a few weeks after that), that the transaction merely guaranteed us "a reservation to fly, not a seat". But we were in luck, we were told. We could be bumped to a later flight, depositing us in San Francisco ten hours after our initial planned arrival, and accept as compensation an unspecified percentage of what we'd paid. "Sometimes, it can really add up," the airline rep informed us, uncannily channelling Agent Smith of Matrix fame'
- Bernhard Warner, 'Overbooked: airlines face a web rebellion', The Times, 30 July 2008 

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